The headline on a Metro section article yesterday about the firing of Howard University Professor Alan McConnell inaccurately reflected his position. McConnell said he asked a student to retract her remark that he was a "patronizing racist," but made it a point not to "demand an apology," as the headline stated.
A tenured faculty member at Howard University has been fired by the board of trustees for refusing to teach an algebra class after a student called him a "patronizing racist."
Alan McConnell, an associate professor of mathematics who had taught at the university for 13 years, said he decided to stop the class because the student's remark and her refusal to retract it had compromised his "moral authority" to teach. He accused university administrators of not giving him proper support by refusing to assign the student to a different section.
However, the trustees ruled in June that McConnell was guilty of "neglect of professional responsibilities" and fired him, though they agreed to continue his $30,000 salary for a year. Earlier, a five-member faculty grievance committee had recommended unanimously that he not be dismissed.
Tenured faculty members essentially have lifetime jobs and can only be dismissed for cause. A spokesman for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) said it is very rare for a tenured faculty member to be dismissed.
McConnell, 51, who is white, is seeking reinstatement. The student involved, a freshman, is black, like most Howard undergraduates.
In a hearing last fall before the grievance committee, William Scott, an assistant university general counsel who presented the charges, said the student's accusation of racism was unwarranted. But he said McConnell had broken his obligation to teach the class and sought to hold all its students "hostage until he received the justice that he wanted" in a dispute involving just one class member.
The charges against McConnell were signed by Robert L. Owens III, dean of the college of liberal arts.
Yesterday the AAUP and its Howard University chapter said they are supporting McConnell's request for reinstatement. The AAUP said the university had not followed proper procedures by firing McConnell without permitting him to present his case directly to the trustees. McConnell said he is also considering filing a lawsuit.
Alan Hermesch, the university spokesman, said Richard P. Thornell, Howard's general counsel, "has been in touch" with AAUP officials about the case. He declined further comment.
Michael R. Winston, the university vice president for academic affairs, also would not discuss the specifics of the case but said: "I have two absolutes that I insist upon: No student has the right to disrupt a class. No faculty member has the right to refuse to teach a class."
Winston said he knew of no other cases in recent years where the university has dismissed a tenured professor, but he said the university "has an obligation to apply the rules across-the-board."
Allison Blakely, a history professor who is president of the 120-member Howard chapter of the AAUP, said yesterday he felt McConnell's ouster did not involve any issue of racial discrimination.
"I don't think there was any racism on the part of the professor," Blakely said, "and I don't think there was any racism on the part of the university."
Blakely said he and many other faculty members urged McConnell to return to the class, but he added, "Professor McConnell is an extremely principled person. He seems sometimes to take positions on principle and to see them to the end at any cost. It think it is sincere idealism . . . . But in some cases it is a dangerous way to be."
According to statements McConnell presented to the grievance committee, the student called him a "patronizing racist" on Sept. 6, 1983, after he told her to stop talking in the back of his classroom.
She repeated the remark a few minutes later, he said, and when he asked her to retract it at the next class meeting, she refused, saying "Go on and teach your class."
McConnell then asked her to leave the room and called security guards who escorted her out when she refused.
That day both McConnell and the student spoke to Austin Lane, the dean of special student services. A few days later the student returned to class again and McConnell then walked out. Another professor took over the class.
According to hearing records, Lane reprimanded the student for her remarks. But both Lane and James Donaldson, the chairman of the math department, said that under university rules, they could not assign the student to a course section taught by a different instructor, as McConnell had requested.
Lane said the student told him that McConnell previously had talked to the class about studies saying blacks perform poorly in math and had compared blacks to monkeys in telling a story about monkeys trying to take too many cookies from a cookie jar.
McConnell strongly denied talking about any studies about black performance in math. He said he told the cookie jar story, as he had done many years before, to make the point that students should not spend too much time on homework, and that he would apologize if anyone had taken the story as a racial reference.